A bottom-up agenda to meet Africa’s food security needs 

Each ECDPM annual report in the 2012-2016 period will focus on one of our four strategic themes. This report highlights our work in the area of food security.

In ECDPM’s view, food, nutrition and agriculture are not just economic sectors, they are political choices. For food security, political leaders must choose to invest in access to and availability of good quality foods, for everyone and at all times. Food security is more than agricultural production, though agriculture lays the foundation for the inclusive and sustainable development of a nation. Without a viable food and agriculture sector, social instability is never far away. Without food security, the best health and education services cannot attain their objectives.

Investing in food security can stimulate entrepreneurs to establish food and agriculture-related businesses. Because most African farmers are women, this helps to integrate them into economic activity. Investments in food security help create resilient societies and provide conduits for economic and social capital development.


Dr Lindiwe Majele Sibanda is head of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network(FANRPAN), headquartered in Pretoria, South Africa. She is also a member of the Montpellier Panel, a think tank on European support for agriculture and food security in sub-Saharan Africa. We asked her to sketch an action agenda for a food-secure Africa.  

Could you briefly describe FANPRAN’s role in promoting agricultural development and some of the key challenges that prevents Africa from achieving its food security goals?

FANRPAN is a regional network that was established in 1997 following a call by ministers of agriculture from East
and Southern Africa who were concerned about the lack of a strong evidence base to guide policymaking.
FANRPAN’s brief is to build the capacity of civil society to collate evidence and to stimulate governments to make use of the resulting knowledge to develop sound policies for food security and sustainable development. As a regional network we bring together farmers’ organisations, governments, researchers and the private sector because we believe it is important to ensure convergence between the policy supply and demand sides and between state and non-state actors. 

The latest report of the Montpellier Panel explores a number of practical pathways to achieve “sustainable intensification,” through producing more food with less impact on the environment. However, there are some who question the Panel’s focus on small-scale farming, stressing that investing in commercial-scale agriculture is more likely to achieve the required economies of scale. Why does this offer the solution to Africa’s food security needs?

I am a big advocate of smallholder farmers and sustainable intensification because the mathematics speaks for itself. We’ve managed to propel the extractive agenda where we wanted “more, more, more” and we put less into the natural resource base that sustains agriculture. But clearly if we are to find a way to double the amount of food we produce to feed a global population of 9 billion people by 2050 something has to change.

So if we start from that simple equation that we’ve been working on a law of diminishing returns, then what should we be doing?

I believe that the best policy approach is to focus on smallholder farmers because they not only account for the bulk of food production but also 70 percent of the population whose livelihood depends solely on agriculture. It is high time we put this key group at the centre of discussions on how best to develop an agricultural model that will sustainably feed a growing population. We have 239 million people on our continent going to bed hungry every day, this cannot continue for another 40 years where we expect to have close to 2 billion people to feed.

Yet there are strong vested interests in maintaining the status quo. How can agricultural policymaking become more inclusive?

When you are poor you become invisible to those in power and so the key lies in a vocal civil society. That’s why we talk about using a justice lens. One of the challenges we’ve had is that we have divorced the agricultural research agenda from smallholder farmer development. Smallholder farmers have not been able to feed the environment because research has failed to address farmers’ basic socio-economic needs such as energy for cooking, water for domestic and agricultural use and affordable post-harvest storage facilities. Among pertinent questions we should be asking are whether farmers are located at the right place to succeed in farming or if they have a conducive policy environment. We also need to explore the kinds of assets and technologies they need to apply sustainable intensification techniques. Only then can we move into a sustainable business model for smallholder agriculture.

This obviously requires a lot of collaboration across sectors, but also levels. How is FANRPAN working to build capacity for such a bottom-up agenda?

At the local level we apply tools like theatre for policy advocacy to foster productive ties between communities, policy makers and the research community. Such dialogue processes equip farmers with evidence of what is happening in other areas. It also helps to unpack policy in a comprehensive manner and generate a research agenda that is aligned to real development needs. In this way ordinary citizens can advocate for change based on their experiences and aspirations with backing from empirical evidence. 

At the regional level a good example is our work to enhance harmonization of seed policies in the Southern African region. In doing so we’ve had support from European partners who were instrumental in getting the SADC [Southern African Development Community) regional protocol in place. Seed production and marketing is big business in Africa, worth about 4 billion US dollars.  While improved seeds are primarily developed by public research institutions, it is multinationals that are harnessing this public good by contracting large-scale farmers to multiply and package the seed that is then sold to poor farmers. There is no reason why smallholder farmers should not also benefit.

FANRPAN’s Harmonised Seed Security Project (HaSSP) is currently being piloted in four SADC countries, where we are mobilising farmers and encouraging them to multiply new seed varieties. Our experience shows that with the right agronomic support smallholder farmers can produce better-quality seed than that produced by commercial farmers. As a result of our efforts, farmers in Zimbabwe are now exporting groundnut seeds to Zambia. And because they are selling it as seed rather than food they are getting four times the price they would get locally.  In 2012 alone Zaka Super Seeds, a community based Seed Company in Zimbabwe supported by the FANRPAN, managed to export 2,3 metric tonnes of sugar beans at $3.50 per kg to Zambia. This is three times the price they would get from local sales.

Ultimately, we need locally relevant research, knowledge, education and extension. But we must also create conducive policy that fosters free trade and empowers smallholder farmers. 

FANRPAN and ECDPM entered into a partnership agreement in 2012. Can you highlight how you are addressing some of these policy challenges, especially in the context to the emerging post-2015 development agenda?

The problem we had with the MDGs is that they were really talking about “us” and “them.” But we are now witnessing a greater convergence in global sustainable development goals, partly because of shared concern about issues such as climate change. This means we have a chance to craft more inclusive policies and bring some equilibrium and equity into the game. However, building global partnerships require trust. By entering into a collaborative partnership we are hoping to operationalize our intentions and achieve impact using outputs from the research we have done jointly and generate advocacy messages. So this is an evolving partnership – one of 52 in our case – but whenever we see an opportunity to operationalize the partnership we will seize it. The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) offers one such opportunity because ECDPM is strongly involved in the initiative. The political economy approach is another interesting area where we would like more support from ECDPM. 

Looking to the future as an African woman and mother what is your hope and vision for achieving more sustainable and equitable development in Africa?

For a long time we have not invested enough in equipping future generations to cope and have a better life than we had. Who, for instance, is partnering with our youth? Where do they go for knowledge outside the classroom? I believe that one of the best ways to safeguard the future of our children is to take advantage of emerging technologies such as social media tools to develop productive partnerships that impart knowledge and wisdom and a better way of doing business. So we are trying to impart principles of responsible citizenship in our youth and that can only happen if they are taught now to give more and demand less from the world. And I think education is key in doing that.